The walls of Heather Dodge’s Westgate Elementary kindergarten classroom are lined with student artwork, the alphabet and numbers. Then there’s the poster the class made detailing strategies to get the hang of addition — a helpful reminder that they can use their fingers, make a number line, draw a picture or use physical objects to find the sum of two numbers.

Spread out across the room are about 20 little people who come barely higher than your knee, gathered around tables, working on learning different shapes. They’re well beyond talking about circles, squares and triangles. Today, they’re working with hexagons, trapezoids and parallelograms.

One child, Kaylee Neale, stands up and says her favorite subject is math and that she loves school.

“It’s fun and we can play with Play-Doh,” she says.

Colorado kindergarten students in 2019 are expected to learn so much more than 5-year-olds were just a decade ago, even if they don’t always realize they’re learning. The kindergarten classroom is no longer a training ground for first grade — it’s school.

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“There’s a lot of learning that happens in kindergarten,” said David Weiss, principal of Westgate in suburban Lakewood, where one-third of students qualify for government-subsidized lunches, a measure of poverty. The lack of universal access to full-day kindergarten, he said, “can create the haves and the have-nots.”

That’s why Gov. Jared Polis says he made funding full-day kindergarten his top legislative goal for his first year in office.

Kindergarteners at Westgate Elementary School work ...

RJ Sangosti, The Denver Post

Kindergarteners at Westgate Elementary School work in small groups on math games on Feb. 6, 2019 in Lakewood.

Currently, nearly 80 percent of the state’s 61,749 kindergarten students attend full-day, according to the state’s education department. While that sounds like a lot, there’s a catch: Colorado public schools receive a little more than half the funding for a kindergarten student as they do for any other student in first through 12th grade.

Where full-day is offered, schools make up the difference with a mix of federal money, other state dollars and tuition paid for by parents. If the legislature agrees to Polis’ plan, that would change starting next school year. The governor’s office estimates 30,000 middle-class families who don’t qualify for tuition-free kindergarten would be able to enroll their children in a full-day classroom.

While there is political momentum like never before to make full-day kindergarten free for parents, it’s still not a sure bet. A bill to make Polis’ promise a reality could be introduced this week, but it comes on the heels of mixed predictions Friday about the state’s revenue outlook.

“It’s one of those deals, that you don’t count the chickens until they pecked their way out of the egg and they’re running around,” said state Rep. Jim Wilson, a Salida Republican who has fought for years to pay for full-day kindergarten. “People still just aren’t comfortable with that kind of obligation.”

The reality is if lawmakers agree to spend $227 million for full-day kindergarten, it would eat up most of the new money in this year’s budget. That means they can’t use it for roads, health care or other priorities. Given that Colorado lawmakers are required to write a balanced budget and are unable to raise taxes without voter approval, it forces legislators to make tough decisions.

“I think early childhood education is the best thing we could do for the state,” said state Rep. Barbara McLachlan, a Durango Democrat who is expected to co-sponsor the kindergarten bill with Wilson. “I just think when kids start early, they just learn how to work well together. School becomes a part of their lives. And it becomes fun.”

However, McLachlan added, “We have to be considerate of all the needs of Colorado, and not just schools. … If we’re going to do it, it has to be sustainable.”

Westgate Elementary School has three kindergarten ...

RJ Sangosti, The Denver Post

Westgate Elementary School has three kindergarten classrooms, seen here on Feb. 6, 2019 in Lakewood.

The case for full-day kindergarten

Ask nearly any teacher, elementary school principal or researcher and they will tell you full-day kindergarten changes academic outcomes for students.

“The thing we want to establish is that it works,” said Rebecca Kantor, dean of the School of Education & Human Development at the University of Colorado Denver. “We know that from multiple studies — national and local — that children who are in full-day programs make significant gains in early reading and math by the end compared to their of peers who attend a half-day program.”

Weiss, the elementary school principal, echoed Kantor.

“Kids starting first grade who have been in full-day kindergarten just perform better,” he said.

A 2010 review by Duke University of all research on full-day kindergarten found that children who attended full-day had better academic success in first grade. Additionally, they may have more self-confidence and were getting along better with their peers. Some of the research suggested these benefits may fade by the third grade, but advocates for early childhood education suspect that has more to do with the lack of quality in first and second grade, rather than kindergarten.

Not all classrooms are created equally — and that holds true in kindergarten, too. Early education advocates, including Kantor, acknowledge there are still some schools that don’t have the sort of quality instruction needed to make a difference. However, they see universal access and funding to a full-day classroom as the first step toward better quality.

“What we should be doing is creating a well-supported, smooth road from early years learning into third grade,” Kantor said

Teacher Michelle Miller works with her ...

RJ Sangosti, The Denver Post

Teacher Michelle Miller works with her kindergarten students at Westgate Elementary School during a math skills lesson on Feb. 6, 2019 in Lakewood.

Experts interviewed by The Denver Post said kindergarten classrooms must focus on rigorous academics as well as social skills. There should be a mix of serious learning time with plenty of fun.

“Kindergarten is about social and emotional learning, the arts,” said Dodge, the Westgate Elementary teacher. “They get to play and problem solve. Kindergarten isn’t what it used to be, and students need the time to explore and play with new information.”

Take, for example, a recent day when her classroom was transformed into “Kindertown.” The lesson was part economics, part civics, part imagination. Students were customers or merchants. They were required to set prices and figure out whether they had enough money for the goods on sale, which included jewelry, portraits and pet rocks.

These sorts of lessons take time, Dodge said. A three-hour school day just isn’t long enough. Still, she doesn’t fault any parent who chooses half-day kindergarten.

Joy Jackson is one of the Westgate parents who opted to not pay the $300-a-month tuition for her daughter to attend full-day kindergarten.

“A big part is the cost,” she said, noting that she’s already spending more than $1,000 on school fees each year for her older children. That’s not counting the extracurricular activity fees, either — such as marching band for one of her kids in high school. “I had to weigh the costs and benefits.”

Jackson said that during the early days of the school year, her kindergartner, Mikayla, had been slower to warm up to some of her classmates, but they have been working on it.

“She’s finding her way in the class now,” Jackson said.

Tyree Howard, 5, gets help with ...

RJ Sangosti, The Denver Post

Tyree Howard, 5, gets help with his shapes during kindergarten class at Westgate Elementary School on Feb. 6, 2019 in Lakewood.

How to pay for it

Like the Jackson family, Colorado lawmakers are faced with managing a budget. And the six legislators tasked with writing the budget this year have expressed concern that the state can’t pay for all-day kindergarten — especially over the long haul. A legislative economic forecast Friday predicted a state revenue drop in the out years, although the Polis administration’s forecast was less negative.

It was just a decade ago that the state slashed education spending because of the Great Recession. Lawmakers want to avoid creating a new program now that they’ll have to take away down the road.

Colorado lawmakers have little wiggle room when it comes to spending, especially with regard to schools. A constellation of state constitutional amendments guides how much tax revenue they can collect and how it’s supposed to be spent.

Spending on Colorado schools is based on a split between local and state tax dollars. If local tax dollars decrease, the state is required to make up the difference to keep funding equal and on par with inflation.

A basket of classroom supplies in ...

RJ Sangosti, The Denver Post

A basket of classroom supplies in one of Westgate Elementary School’s three kindergarten classrooms on Feb. 6, 2019 in Lakewood.

Polis’ plan for full-day kindergarten is founded on the proposition that the state won’t be required to backfill revenue lost from a decrease in local property taxes, as was expected just a year ago.

If lawmakers go along, it could trigger a sort of domino effect. School districts that currently pay for kindergarten themselves would see millions in existing revenue freed up to use for any number of purposes, including paying teachers more. Schools that also use a special early-education fund to pay for kindergarten could divert that money to more preschool students.



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